Becoming a paralegal can be a very rewarding career for someone who is interested in the legal field but does not want to become an attorney. Paralegals can do a lot of the daily work that can help to make a lawyer's job easier. The most important skill a paralegal can learn is time management. First, what is a paralegal and what do they do?
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is an individual who has the appropriate training to handle important legal matters under the supervision of an attorney. A paralegal is unable to provide legal advice or to represent a client in court but may handle a lot of the workload that is the responsibility of the lawyer. Someone who would like to become a paralegal should be accurate, pay close attention to detail, organized and efficient. Previous office experience is very beneficial and may even be required by some employers. A paralegal must adhere to set standards of ethics and rules regarding professional responsibility.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals can have various duties, often based on where employed, such as for an individual attorney, a large firm, or a government agency. One paralegal may spend most of the day performing legal research or writing legal briefs, a paralegal at another office may spend a lot of time answering phones, filing documents with the court, or even interviewing clients. The day-to-day duties of a paralegal may not always be the same from one day to the next. Not only does it depend on the type of agency or firm with which one is employed, it can also vary based on the types of law handled within the practice. For example, a paralegal may schedule many court dates and perform legal research if the attorney handles many criminal cases. On the other hand, if the firm focuses on estate law, the paralegal will prepare more legal documents, such as trusts and wills.
Being a paralegal is not always as glamorous as entertainment media would have one believe. Much of the day is spent in basic office work. This is not to say that this work is unimportant or that it does not involve legal matters because it is and it does. However, one's time is not always spent researching cases in the law library or assisting the attorney with a case in the courtroom. If the paralegal also has office management duties, a lot of time can be spent keeping the agency running smoothly. This might involve getting to work early to turn on all the equipment, check the answering machine and emails, and get the files ready for the day's workload.
During the day, a paralegal answers the phone, schedule meetings, schedule court dates, make copies, prepare documents, type letters, send out billings, create memos, maintain files, and other administrative duties that are required to make the firm run smoothly. The paralegal must also keep track of billable hours worked for each client.
While a lot of the office work will pertain to legal matters, there are more types of work that are legal in nature that are often performed by paralegals under the supervision of a licensed lawyer. Some of the legal work may include performing legal research. This might include searching case laws for any possible precedents that may have been set regarding a certain law under specific circumstances.
The paralegal will most likely spend a lot of time drafting or completing legal documents that are utilized by the lawyer. Some of this documentation may be used in court or in connection with cases heard in the courtroom. Legal briefs, pleadings, discoveries, and responses are just a few of the types of documents that the paralegal will work on. When preparing for the attorney to go to court, the paralegal must make sure all information is presented clearly and factually, and all the documents are arranged in an appropriate order for the lawyer to access during court proceedings.
There are times when a paralegal will meet with clients or witnesses. Most of these interviews will be more about obtaining additional information or completing documents. A paralegal may even go over information with a client to explain how the case will proceed.
The paralegal may need to locate potential witnesses for a case. Once witnesses have been located, the paralegal will conduct an interview to gather information that is pertinent to the case. After obtaining all the information, the paralegal is responsible for clearly and concisely summarizing this information into a memo or other type of document for the attorney to read.
A Sample Day in the Life of One Paralegal
The paralegal arrives at the firm half an hour before the attorneys and other staff arrive at the firm The paralegal turns on the lights, the copier, and all of the computers. Then, starts up the coffee machine before sitting down to check messages left after hours. After taking down all the information, the paralegal places the appropriate messages on each lawyer's desk. The paralegal then goes through the email messages, responding to those that need immediate answers, forwards others to the appropriate individuals, and takes notes on emails that need further work.
As the paralegal begins pulling the day's files, others in the office begin to come in. While the paralegal would like to engage in small talk, they know they have much to do. The paralegal places files for each attorney on their desks and brings a stack of files to their desk. The paralegal grabs a cup of coffee and sits down to begin the work for the day.
On some days, the paralegal would be checking the court schedule to see if they had to attend. However, they have other duties on this particular day. Thankfully there are two legal secretaries in the firm who can answer phone calls and talk briefly with any walk-ins who are not on the schedule. The paralegal has asked the secretaries to take messages, which will be returned this afternoon. The paralegal has a special job this morning. They need to find a witness that can potentially help a client's case. They get on their computer and accesses their databases. After making a few phone calls, the paralegal is able to locate the witness who is willing to give a statement. They schedule an appointment to meet with the witness to get this information.
Although tracking down the witness took a bit longer than anticipated, the paralegal still has some time left in her morning. They write some notes in the file and places it in the "done" box. On to the next file. The paralegal continues on with busy work for each of these files, such as making copies or filing motions, until it is almost lunch. They are actually doing good on time today, as they are a little over halfway done with their files. Before clocking out for lunch, the paralegal checks phone messages and returns calls. Although the firm does not have any rules against personal phone use, the paralegal keeps a cell phone off until lunch so that it does not interfere with work.
Although the paralegal is permitted an hour for lunch, they only take 30 to 45 minutes so that they can get more work done for the firm. Today, the paralegal is to sit in with an attorney who is interviewing a new client, so they want to be sure they have all the necessary paperwork ready for the meeting. The paralegal also checks emails again, going through the process that they did in the morning. Because the legal secretaries stagger their lunches, the paralegal does not have to check the answering machine before returning to work.
The meeting goes smoothly, with the attorney using the documents that the paralegal has brought in. They take notes during the interview so that they can conduct any future interviews with the client should more information be necessary.
After the meeting with the new client, which happened to go longer than expected, the paralegal is a bit stressed returning to their desk to complete work on time. The paralegal carefully works through each file until they get to the one saved for last. This file will take some legal research to find out if there have been any similar cases that have had rulings of which they should be aware. Thankfully, the firm has all the legal information in their own database, allowing the paralegal to work right from the office. They find the information and writes a memo for the lawyer and places it in the file.
As the paralegal places the final file in her "done" box, they notice that many of the others have left for the day. The paralegal has worked over a half an hour already, and still has to finish up. They check emails, answer those that need an immediate response, forwards those that require it, and make a note to tackle the others in the morning. The paralegal returns the last couple of phone calls and saves the rest for the morning. The paralegal puts away all of the files completed for the day. The legal secretaries have already cleaned up and shut down most of the office, so the paralegal just has to shut off the computer and copier. The paralegal hits the lights on the way out and makes a mental note to come in a little early the next morning.
Regardless of the type of practice, a paralegal should be flexible and able to handle a wide range of legal and office duties as might be assigned from one day to the next. However, one factor is for certain, and that is the paralegal must be able to multitask and meet deadlines. This makes it vital for the prospective paralegal to learn essential time management skills both before and while on the job.
What Is Time Management and Why Is It Important?
Time management is the ability of an individual to use the available time in a work day efficiently in productive matters. A paralegal in certain settings may be in a constant race against the clock. However, some days will be busy and hectic while others can be slow and paced. Because legal matters require precision and deadlines must be met, managing one's time effectively might very well be the single most important thing that a paralegal can do each and every day.
Without appropriate time management skills, the hours could slip by on menial tasks leaving the paralegal scrabbling to meet deadlines, such as filing documents with the court or being on time and fully prepared for scheduled meetings or hearings. Managing one's time properly can help the paralegal with the following:
- Meet deadlines
- Increase billings
- Manage testimonies
- Prepare for court
- Complete documents
- Finish more work
Anyone can learn to develop effective time management skills. Although this will not happen overnight, budding paralegals should strive to keep improving their time management skills throughout the course of their employment.
Principles of Good Time Management
Depending on the source, there are many different time management principles to follow. In reality, there are as many steps or principles that are necessary to help an individual to find their method for effective time management. While many of the principles are the same for everyone, others are better suited to certain job settings or for people with certain personalities. Anyone who wishes to gain better time management skills will want to learn as much as possible and take each principle that will work for their respective needs.
Principle #1: Prioritize
Most people know that prioritizing is an important aspect of getting things done, whether in general or as a specific principle of time management. However, not everyone knows how to go about making their priorities in a way that will be both effective and efficient. Each task for the work day is given a number based on the level of urgency and importance that it is completed in a certain time-frame.
- Both urgent and important
- Important but not necessarily urgent
- Urgent but not important
- Neither important nor urgent
A paralegal can make this prioritization first thing in the morning or the evening before if necessary. Additionally, making priorities can occur throughout the day as new matters come to light, so it is important that one keeps the schedule open for these factors.
Priority Examples for the Busy Paralegal
Priority level 1 will include any tasks that have an important deadline, such as court filings or proceedings. This can also include any work that the attorney needs done by a specific time for meetings with clients.
Priority level 2 might include documents and information needed for meetings with clients or other attorneys. This includes vital legal research. One factor that is not always considered here is the personal health of the paralegal. A clear mind is important to getting the work completed accurately the first time. Effective paralegals allow themselves a little break or down time to ensure that they are refreshed enough to function at their best.
Priority level 3 tasks can include preparing for meetings in house or interviews with witnesses. Emails and phone calls should go here as well.
Priority level 4 tasks can include all the administrative work that goes into the day, such as answering the phone, making copies, or pulling and putting away files. Any tasks that can be done by somebody else would also go here.
Principle #2: Plan
Planning is an important part of time management. One should use this time to assign a priority number to all the jobs that need to be completed in a day, or even a week, to make it easier to get the most important matters done. The paralegal may even choose to make a list of priorities in order of importance to ensure that every task will be complete on time. Not only should every task be placed in some order of importance, the amount of time that will be needed for each task should be noted as well.
This is also the time to delegate those tasks that are neither important nor urgent to others in the work place if the firm or agency has legal secretaries or other office workers that are available to assist. When making a plan, one should always place those difficult or unwanted tasks that must be done at the beginning of the work day. Saving the unpleasant tasks until the end of the day can create unnecessary stress and may leave the paralegal's mind to wander to the dreaded future task rather than focusing on the work at hand. When that difficult task is completed, one can relax and focus more clearly on other matters of importance.
Planning Examples for the Busy Paralegal
In the story of the paralegal, they prioritized right down to the emails. They answered those that were urgent, took notes on what could wait, and forwarded those that could be handled by someone else.
Principle #3: Schedule
If making a priority list is not enough, a paralegal may choose to schedule the entire work day. When making a schedule, the priority level 1 items come first. These will include anything with a deadline or with a set time, like a meeting with a client or a witness. Next, the priority level 2 items should be written in and followed by the level 3 items. It is important to remember that level 2 items include breaks, and these may change as the day goes on. If there is no one to delegate the priority level 4 tasks to, the paralegal may have to schedule them in as well.
When making a schedule, the paralegal should not try to multitask. Multitasking does not allow for the work to receive the appropriate attention, and can lead to longer time spent on unnecessary matters. One will find that by focusing on one thing at a time, more will get done right during the day. The only time that multitasking could be beneficial could be in regard to office work. For example, the paralegal can take all client files in which copies are required and do them all at once as long as the end products are filed correctly when done.
It is important for one to remember that a schedule should be flexible to allow for the unexpected. One should always leave a bit of room in case something goes wrong, or an emergency arises that needs attention.
Scheduling Example for the Busy Paralegal
The paralegal’s afternoon meeting ran longer than expected. Luckily, they did not have any deadlines to meet on the schedule as the day was spent in the office. Had they needed to, they could have delegated some busy work to the secretaries, but the paralegal had time to complete those tasks. Additionally, the paralegal kept their personal phone off to prevent time-wasting distractions that were not on the schedule or to-do list.
Principle #4: Organize
Clutter and disorganization can waste hours during the day. Having an organized work environment not only will help an individual to feel better, it can also help the work go more smoothly. Organization must occur for every space in which the paralegal must work, from the filing system to the paralegal's desk all the way to their computer. When there is a place for everything and everything is in its place, this can save a lot of time throughout the course of a work day.
If others in the office are not quite so organized, it can be a challenge, so the paralegal should only worry about what they can change to make the workplace environment more conducive to production.
Organization Example for the Busy Paralegal
The paralegal always kept files organized. They had a separate box in which to place completed files so that the paralegal could more easily put them away at the end of the day. They also had a list of emails and phone calls to check on that they kept within easy reach for when the paralegal needed them.
Principle #5: Be Flexible
Should the unexpected happen, it is important for the paralegal to keep their schedule flexible. When something takes more time than expected, less time is spent on something else. On the other hand, some of these tasks may be delegated if this is possible.
When a task is completed early, this will allow the paralegal some time to tackle other duties that are on the to-do list. It could be the next item on the list or something left off the schedule due to time restrictions. A small break in the workload can also be a good time to take a brisk walk around the building or sit and meditate for a few moments to clear the mind before getting to the next task on the schedule. Whatever the paralegal chooses to do, this is not the time for distractions or to deal with unnecessary matters.
Time Management for the Paralegal
The reason time management skills are so important to the paralegal comes down to billable hours. The attorney can only bill clients for certain types of work. Much of a paralegal's day involves completing the tasks within the office and busy work, which are not typically billed to the client. In fact, if one is not careful with the way they manage time, a paralegal can spend nearly half of their work day on non-billable matters.
Tips for Paralegals
In addition to the time management strategies that have already been discussed, there are some additional considerations to more effectively manage one's time while on the job.
Identify Time Wasters
No matter how much one plans, there will be certain tasks that may arise that waste time. Emails, phone calls, and filing can often take longer than one would expect unless time limits are placed on these tasks.
Personal phone calls, office gossip, and other matters can sneak in and distract even the most dedicated paralegal. Not only is the time spent on the distraction itself wasted, but it can take more than 20 minutes after becoming distracted to return one's focus to the original task at hand.
While multitasking by performing unrelated duties can be a big no-no, combining like duties as a form of multitasking can be a big time saver. This could mean making copies at the same time, completing filing at once, returning all phone calls in a certain space of time, or any other way that one might effectively combine similar tasks without losing focus. One can return phone calls or emails rather than just standing idly by the copier until completed. This is especially important when the paralegal is completing non-billable work that still needs completing.
Use Time to Save Time
Efficient paralegals know that it takes time to plan in order to save time throughout the day. By taking 15 to 20 minutes in the morning, one can set up a good working schedule for the day that will allow more work to be done overall. Alternately, one might choose to take that time in the afternoon before leaving work to plan for the following day's work. In fact, many paralegals find it easier to schedule the more dreaded tasks for first thing when they make their schedule the evening before.
Ready to make a difference in peoples’ lives as a paralegal or legal assistant? The Paralegal Studies program in Clarksville is designed to prepare students to prepare legal reports and documents, legal correspondence, legal research, letters, questions for the interrogatories, legal memoranda, briefs, pleadings, contracts, wills, and deeds. Graduates from the Paralegal Studies program have an opportunity for entry-level paralegal and legal assistant positions and to perform specialized delegated, substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. Paralegals and legal assistants work under the supervision of a licensed attorney and may not deliver legal services directly to the public.
If you think that the Paralegal Studies program may be right for helping you to meet your career goals, please feel free to contact us today.